Back in mid-July, Ryugasaki hosted their annual Interactive English Forum. This was the preliminary competition to choose the eight students (four 2nd graders and four 3rd graders) to represent the city in the Southern Ibaraki Interactive Forum. I was both nervous and excited for the six students representing my junior high school. We trained day in and day out for a month leading up to the tournament.
From what I was told, the Interactive Forum is an English competition unique to Ibaraki prefecture. For five minutes, three students have a general conversation about a chosen topic (e.g. sports, school, food, dreams/aspirations). The topic merely serves as a starting point. As with any conversation, once things start flowing, a sports talk could very well turn into a discussion about food. The key is that the students are able to hold a fluid conversation beyond just asking yes/no questions. Each student is judged individually against all the competitors, not against the two other students in their conversation group. So in a weird way, it’s a non-competitive competition. It’s hard to one-up someone if you’re being graded in all aspects of conversation: listening, speaking, responding, politeness, etc.
On this day, I served as a judge for mainly the third grade students. Many of the students spoke English very well for their age. Yet right off the bat I could tell which students were the “juku kids” and which didn’t study English beyond the classroom. Juku [じゅく／塾], or what I like to call after school hell, is the Japanese word for cram school. Juku is designed to prepare students for high school entrance exams in a variety of subjects. Why I call it hell: most jukus usually start after the mandatory extracurricular activities end in junior high schools. Some of my students don’t finish up with their juku classes until 9 or 10 at night. Which leaves them with absolutely no time to do much beyond eat and sleep once they get home.
Cram schools are owned by private companies and are not mandatory for students. But they help significantly in preparing students for high school exams. Unfortunately, they are fairly expensive. As a result, only the wealthier kids tend to go to these schools, and end up receiving an all-around better education than their peers.
Another interesting thing I noticed while judging: the students had developed English accents based on whoever might have taught them the most. One girl had an entirely British-English accent. And was damn near fluent, too. It’s safe to assume that she was probably taught English by a British man/woman from a very young age. Other contestants who weren’t Japanese, but grew up in Japan, had different accents as well. A cultural fusion of their native tongue, Japanese, and English. I can only imagine how their brains must work. I can barely think straight in English. But in three languages? Fuggedaboudit!
Over the next few hours, judging became mentally draining. Finally, lunch arrived. Soon after that, the announcement of semifinalists. I had for sure thought that my 3rd years made it to the final round. And I was right: 2 out of 3 of the students moved on. All three of my 2nd years moved on too. I was so excited. I saw all those days of practice pay off. They had grown so much in speaking English, and I felt a part of it! But I had to retain my excitement. Anything could happen in the last round.
Grading the 2nd grade students wasn’t too difficult. Even among the finalists, the differences in language comprehension were fairly discernible. However, the final rounds for the third graders were quite different. Practically everyone was around the same level. In the end, it came down to a difference in 1-2 points which determined the four finalists. My third graders didn’t make it. On the bright side though, two of my second graders won. They moved on the southern prefectural tournament in August.
I could see the upset frustration in the eyes of my third graders. We worked so hard. But it all came down to one point. One point made the difference. Like the coach I was for the last month, I gave them a little post-game pep talk. I did my best to drop in the cheesy inspiration; told them all they would become fluent one day. Yet they still seemed down. I remember those days…When losing something meant losing everything. For them, it could have just as well been the end of the world.
A few days later, one of my students came rushing up to me after class.
“Eric-sensei! Although I didn’t win the Interactive Forum, I still want to continue practicing English. So is it okay if I come to you for English help?”
I guess the cheesy inspirational stuff worked.